By Sherry McKelvie
I first came to know Bulago island in 1999. The kids and my husband, Jeremy, had finally persuaded me to agree to the purchase of a speedboat (3 against 1 – I had no chance!). We then looked for places on the lake to visit and one day we headed out to investigate an island which friends of ours had bought, and on which they were planning to build a lodge. Like many others, we fell in love with the place...
Known in the past as Crocodile Island, due to a large croc that sunbathed on a rock in the bay, or Boob Island, due to its ‘twin peaks’, Bulago Island, meaning ‘neck’ in Luganda, presumably due to its narrow middle, is now home to a newly refurbished lodge called Pineapple Bay Resort, a couple of little farms , a dwindling fishing village, about 40 privately owned plots, of which 15 have holiday homes on, and it even boasts a 1000m grass airstrip.
The island is just over 500 acres and 3 kms long from end to end, criss-crossed with several kilometres of paths. The ecology is varied – sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, volcanic rock, sandstone, savannah, bush and rain forest – it is all there. Fortunately it has not suffered the fate of other islands and been stripped bare – although some trees were cut in the past, they are now jealously guarded and there are some wonderful specimens – I think my favourite is a beautiful old Bombax – viciously thorny but gloriously imposing and a froth of pink when in flower – and a couple of giant euphorbia.
When we first visited, most of the island was thick bush, the beaches hidden beneath trailing creepers and vegetation. The proprietors, who later formed a company called the Lake Victoria Sailing Company, had cleared the beach in the main bay and lived in a couple of army tents. On Sundays, fellow adventurers with boats would pitch up, cool- boxes overflowing, and offload them onto the mess table for all to share, and so the community spirit was born that is a special element of Bulago life.
One Sunday lunchtime during this ‘bring and share’ some kids who had been paddling about on a surfboard, came running to tell their parents that a man in a canoe with a big beard was coming and he’d sailed all the way from Kisumu across the lake. ‘’Rubbish’’ said the rest of us, swigging our G & T’s – but sure enough, a few minutes later the well-known explorer and adventurer, Michael Horn, pitched up in his tiny wooden canoe, having spent the best part of 3 days paddling and sailing across from Kenya, and had survived a nasty storm during the night. Dressed in tatty old shorts and t-shirt, brown as a berry, with wild hair and bushy beard, the poor man was totally gobsmacked to arrive on an ‘desert island’ and be greeted with smoked salmon sandwiches, a bottle of bubbly, and an equally gobsmacked bunch of expats!!
Gradually, over the next few years, the island developed. The initial lodge was opened and visitors started arriving. Plots along the beaches were sold and some were developed (ours was the first), paths were cleared and an infrastructure took shape. We have a wonderful catalogue of happy memories of beach parties, club suppers, New Year revelries and lots and lots of hilarious moments. Likewise there have been sad times, the most tragic being the untimely death of Mattie, the beautiful and talented daughter of Tim Cooper, one of the proprietors. She spent Christmas with us all, but died of malaria shortly after returning to UK for her second semester at university. A thatched hut and picnic table on top of one of the hills was erected in her memory by some of the residents. She is never forgotten.
The people who own plots on the island are a very varied bunch – Ugandan, British, Kenyan, Indian, Dutch, Danish, American, Canadian to name just some. Some live abroad - UK, Italy, Denmark, Abu Dhabi – some live in Uganda. The holiday homes that have been built are all unique – an expression of their owners’ ideas and aspirations.
Lake Victoria has been over-fished badly during the last few years. Whereas catching a 50 kg Nile Perch was not uncommon 10 years ago, today it is a rarity. We are therefore delighted that a large area around Bulago has been declared a fish reserve by law and no one can now fish there without a licence. The increase in fish has attracted a few crocodiles in search of an easy meal, and the otters love it – floating on their backs, fish between their front paws, whiskers twitching in ecstasy. After their meal, the adults climb out onto the rocks to sunbathe, whilst the youngsters jump in and out of the water and chase each other around.
Once in a while, a dark head is seen cutting through the water – monitor lizards abound, from babies 250cms long to some grampies of around 2 metres. They are shy of humans but often venture up onto the beaches to raid the lapwings’ nests for a nice fresh egg for breakfast.
Another couple of dark heads that used to pop up unexpectedly were a female hippo and her baby. We would sometimes listen to them chomping the grass on our lawn during the night and there would be an interesting trail of prints on the beach the following morning. Sadly, they have not been seen for a while, and we think they may have been killed.
The bugs, butterflies and dragonflies and an entomologist’s dream, the colours spectacular – my favourite is the Picasso Bug. About the size of my fingernail, it has to be one of the finest examples of God’s creativity!
If you are a ‘twitcher’, the birdlife is fabulous. There is a great variety due to the diverse ecology. Migrating gulls and terns flock onto the beaches, in particular the spit at the end of the island. The cheeky chit-chat of African Grey Parrots can usually be heard – we occasionally get flocks of up to 30 in one of our trees! Walking along the beach in the bay you can spot Yellow-billed Ducks, Egyptian Geese, Lesser and Cattle Egrets, Hadida and Sacred Ibis, Herons, Black-winged Stilts with their graceful long pink legs, Open-billed and Abdim Storks, Sandpipers and Redshanks… but watch where you step, especially if you start getting dive-bombed by a couple of frantic Spur-winged Lapwings – they lay their eggs right out in the open and they are easily missed.
Rocks and trees around the island are favourite perches for Great and Long-tailed Cormorants, whilst inland we are gifted with the African Paradise Flycatcher. These stunning birds are mainly russet brown and the males have wonderful long tail-feathers – sometimes white, sometimes brown, sometimes both. They are quite shy, and flit from undergrowth to undergrowth tails flying like fine banners, giving one tantalising glimpses of their exquisite beauty, dark crested head and bright blue eye-ring.
From sheer beauty to pretty ugly, a loud fwoom fwoom fwoom of beating wings and a peace-shattering quark quark signals the arrival of the Black & White Casqued Hornbills – nearly always a couple, sometimes 5 or 6 of them, hopping about in the branches, they are fun to watch as they woo one another, or clean their huge beaks on the bark.
Malachite, Pigmy, Woodland and Pied Kingfishers add flashes of colour. Various species of Weaver Birds build nests all over the place. Hundreds of Swallows and House Martins swoop and loop, catching lakeflies. Amongst the raptors are Fish Eagles, Palm Nut Vultures, African Harrier Hawks, Grey Kestrels and Black Kites. Rarer sightings include a female Black-Bellied Bustard, a Namaqua Dove a Bat Hawk and an African Barn Owl, who used to come and sit in the rafters and watch us eating dinner.
Travel to and from the island is either by boat from the mainland (30 mins by speedboat or an hour by canoe on a calm day), or by plane from Kajjansi airstrip (10 minutes).
Sipping a Sundowner on top of the hill, watching a glorious sunset turning the sky a blushing pink, with a full moon rising at the same time, casting a silver of sliver across the water, we sigh with pleasure and ask ourselves, ‘Who needs the National Geographic channel on TV, when we have all this just a stone’s throw from Kampala?
The Author: Sherry is a Brit who has lived in Uganda for 21 years. She is Director of Terrain Plant Ltd in Muyenga, Email: wilduganda “at” sherry-mckelvie "dot" com